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NorthWestern Energy’s bills reach Gov. Desk in Mont. March 25, 2009

The state’s largest electric-and-gas utility is rolling its agenda through the Legislature — an agenda it says will lead to lower energy bills and more “green” power for consumers.

“What we’re trying to do is protect ratepayers from big costs,” says John Fitzpatrick, NorthWestern Energy’s lead lobbyist in the halls of the Capitol. “(And) we’re not looking at any coal. It’s all renewable power.”

Yet critics of the company say NorthWestern’s agenda is more about ensuring it owns the means of power production, which is a new revenue stream for the company, and undercutting competing, independent generators.

“They want to kill any generation capacity that they don’t own,” says Rep. Brady Wiseman, D-Bozeman. “They don’t speak for consumers. They speak for their stockholders.”

Developers of small, independent power projects, particularly wind, also say NorthWestern wants to cut them out of the picture, by changing laws encouraging the purchase of renewable power from these types of projects.

“If they want to be honest about it, they should just seek a repeal of the (renewable-power standards), because that’s what we’ll have in practice if they get their way,” says Suzanne Bessette, a Helena attorney representing small power producers.

Two bills changing Montana’s renewable-power requirements for utilities have passed the Legislature and await Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s signature, and another is before the Senate, having passed the House.

Current law requires NorthWestern to buy a minimum amount of power from small “community” green-power projects by 2010. The two laws that have passed extend the deadline to 2012 and increase the size of projects that would qualify.

The third measure, House Bill 343, says NorthWestern can own the community projects. Together, the three bills would allow NorthWestern to develop or purchase a 25-megawatt renewable project, rather than buying the power from smaller, independent projects. The company says the larger project would produce cheaper power.

Rep. Art Noonan, D-Butte, is sponsoring HB343 and chairing the House Federal Relations, Energy and Telecommunications Committee. He’s supportive of NorthWestern, whose Montana headquarters are in Butte.

Noonan said he wants NorthWestern to be successful in rebuilding itself as a utility that owns its power plants and sells to consumers, like the old Montana Power Co. In the wake of the 1997 deregulation law, MPC sold off its assets and became NorthWestern, which owned no power production and must buy most power on the open market for consumers.

“I would rather have a solid company in Butte that I could look at and regulate, than a thousand little rancher-corporations all owning a few windmills,” he said. “I just won’t apologize in this session for wanting to assist NorthWestern in becoming a strong, viable corporation in our economy.

“I believe that this company wants to provide good, cheap power to the state of Montana and rebuild what once was the glory of Montana Power Co.”

Noonan supports another bill that is bitterly opposed by renewable-power producers.

Senate Bill 403, which faces a vote in Noonan’s committee Wednesday, would allow NorthWestern to get renewable power “credit” by purchasing power from the small producers, but without buying the producers’ green-power credits that certify the purchase.

Fitzpatrick says SB403 would save consumers money, because those credits may cost as much as 50 percent more than the power itself.

Bessette says those numbers are wildly inflated, and even if NorthWestern must buy the credits from her clients, the price for their power would be no more than what the utility’s customers now pay.

Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad and a member of the House Energy Committee, says some of NorthWestern’s initiatives make sense. He says allowing the company to own larger, renewable projects could cut costs for consumers as well as help NorthWestern’s bottom line.

He has voted for most of NorthWestern’s initiatives, but says he worries that the company may make it too difficult for independent projects to provide power to NW customers — power that sometimes may be cheaper than a company development.

“(Their bills) are always framed as being good for the consumer,” he said. “But you have to make sure that when NorthWestern makes that argument, that the consumer interests and shareholder interests really are aligned.”

Fitzpatrick says the more NorthWestern can build its own plants and get them in the “rate base,” which means consumers pay the costs of projects but get first dibs on the power, the more customers will see cheaper costs in the long run.

“The full advantage of rate-basing is you lock in the capital cost over the life of the entity,” he said. “The capital cost of the project remains stable, and it stabilizes rates long-term.”

Wiseman says that argument doesn’t apply to every project, and that NorthWestern wants to squash anything that gets in its way of owning and producing as much generation as possible.

“We voted to let them own generation (in 2007), but we did not vote to give them the power to squeeze everybody else out, which is what they’re doing,” he said. “They’ve got everything they’ve asked for. They’ve rolled us on everything.”

By MIKE DENNISON, IR State Bureau –


Below are links from previous NW Renewable News posts related to Northwestern Energy’s and their ‘campaign’ to destroy small/medium scale renewable energy development in Montana:


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